Tacoma pays too much to dredge Mississippi mud

The News TribuneMay 22, 2014 

The ZIM Djibouti container ship moves through the Blair Waterway before docking at Washington United Terminals at the Port of Tacoma in July 2013.

STAFF FILE PHOTO, 2013

A state shouldn’t be robbed because its rivers are clean and its harbors are deep.

Tell that to Congress, though. Washington’s ports have long been burdened by a larcenous congressional scheme called the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, which has been siphoning $60 million a year out of Puget Sound ports and delivering most of it to Atlantic and Gulf Coast ports.

At long last, the West has now established a claim on some of the $800 million that ports across the nation pay into the fund every year. The state’s two senators, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, have secured $25 million to offset what “donor ports” like Tacoma have been getting squeezed for.

The harbor maintenance tax, which feeds the fund, is a heavy anchor that’s been getting heavier by the year for Tacoma and Seattle.

It works by imposing a .125 percent fee on all cargo imported though American ports. The money is supposed to be spent dredging canals, rivers and harbors, and otherwise keeping ports open for business.

The fund has been a golden goose for ports on the Mississippi and other muddy rivers that deposit vast volumes of silt in waterways. They need a lot of expensive dredging.

By comparison, the deep ports of Puget Sound need very little dredging. We do starfish, not silt. But Pacific Rim shippers still have to pay the .125 percent tax when they move goods through Tacoma and Seattle.

That teeny weenie tax adds up to big money for a ship stacked with thousands of freight containers the size of trucks. On average, shippers pay a little more than $100 for every container they send through Puget Sound. This can turn into hundreds of thousands of dollars for a large containership.

If the only problem were subsidizing muddier American ports, we could commiserate with the shippers and move on. Unfortunately, those shippers can bypass Puget Sound entirely and send their goods through Vancouver or Prince Rupert in Canada, or through Mexico.

That’s exactly what’s happening. Canadian port officials talk up their lack of a harbor maintenance tax when they make sales pitches to shipping companies. This is part of the reason Puget Sound ports have been seeing a decline in their share of Pacific Rim imports.

These aren’t just abstract numbers: Maritime commerce in Tacoma and Seattle supports an estimated 200,000 jobs. Those jobs shouldn’t be put in danger by an arbitrary tax that returns little benefit.

Ultimately, Puget Sound’s ports ought to get a much larger offset for what they’ve been sending to the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund. The Murray-Cantwell measure is a long way from a solution. But it is a start.

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